What does it sound like?:
The Beatles probably proposed the title A Doll’s House for their White Album because it conjures an image of multiple rooms packed with intricacies and trinkets, reflecting an album of thirty songs spread across four sides of vinyl, a cornucopia of different moods and musical styles. Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, is full of secrets, lies, blackmail, sickness, death and disordered relationships, ending in divorce. Just over a year later, after The Beatles broke up, the themes of Ibsen’s play seemed more apt. Besides the turmoil within The Beatles themselves, the unrest in the outside world of 1968 seeped through Abbey Road’s sound-proofed walls adding to the distress in its grooves. The album is an unnerving listen. Even the prettiest songs have bite.
Following Sgt. Pepper proved to be quite a problem for The Beatles. They didn’t have enough songs for a full Magical Mystery Tour album, a made for TV film broadcast at Christmas that was greeted with bewilderment, and the ones they had were Sgt. Pepper-lite. They decided to refresh their creative juices by travelling to Rishikesh in India to learn Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram. The drug-free environment certainly yielded songwriting results. Lennon, in particular, was rejuvenated, having spent most of 1967 in a haze, but Harrison, too, was inspired. Spiritually, however, the trip ended in disillusionment.
The Beatles returned to the studio still lacking the sense of direction lost when Brian Epstein died. Recording the songs took six long months sprinkled with acrimony, bitterness and resentment. Some required multiple remakes and takes running into three figures. The discipline of good sense quit when Geoff Emerick left and George Martin took a long holiday. Surprisingly, the phlegmatic Ringo had a leave of absence. The final product, wrapped in Richard Hamilton’s austere white, is regarded by some as an incoherent mess, too long and too difficult, but with gems buried within.
However, The Beatles, to give the album its true title, was a huge hit, especially in America, and it has endured, often beating its glamorous predecessor in popularity and critic polls. It’s almost as though it has developed over time, revealing its mysteries sometimes decades later. Long, Long, Long, as a case in point, lay dormant at the end of side three for many years but, eventually, grew in stature until its magnificence was recognised. It’s also an album that changes according to the state of mind the listener brings to it. One day, a track like Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? is frivolous throwaway filler but, on another, it’s a radical work of minimalist art. The White Album’s flaws have become as loveable as its perfections. No two Beatles fans can agree on which songs should constitute a Single White.
Giles Martin’s remix is sensitive and revelatory. It does little to reframe the hi-fi but pays close attention to the textures and the details. He manages to untangle knotted thickets of sound, separating multiple guitars, voices, strings and horns. Each instrument is given more space without the denser tracks losing any of their complexity. The bass and drums are enhanced yet sound softer, adding depth and resonance. The barely noticeable cymbal on Why Don’t We Do It On The Road?, for example, is mesmerising and the tambourines on The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill are tremendous. Some tracks are completely transformed, such as Piggies or Yer Blues. On others, like Happiness Is A Warm Gun or Helter Skelter, the changes are more subtle but no less effective. For the quieter tracks, perhaps Martin has applied even more wizardry. The weave of acoustic guitars on Dear Prudence and I Will sound wondrous. The intimacy of Blackbird and Julia is almost intrusive. It’s as though he has polished the guitar strings and finally we can see their grain. The piano sound he achieves is eloquent and quite different in each song, from the barrelling provided by George Martin on Rocky Racoon to McCartney’s ironic wink in Sexy Sadie and a sinister Lennon for Cry Baby Cry. Best of all is Martin’s treatment of the vocals. He has, as source material, two of the greatest Rock voices of all time but he makes Harrison sound almost their equal and the backing vocalists, often just girlfriends hanging around the studio, become almost celestial. He does all this while still confronting the album’s inherent melancholy and anger. The coda of While My Guitar Gently Weeps is heavy with foreboding, I’m So Tired groans with anguish and Birthday is almost an admonishment. Giles Martin has made The White Album darker and more immersive, accentuating its ugliness as much as its beauty. Beatles fans can happily lose themselves in it for the next fifty years.
In the most basic edition of this anniversary, there is a third disc of 27 Esher demos, recorded when The Beatles regrouped after Rishikesh. They are rudimentary, sometimes double-tracked. The most fun is to be had when a number of The Beatles plus trusty companions strum away on acoustic guitars, clap their hands and thump improvised percussion. Back In The USSR, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey and Polythene Pam are a breeze. Even Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a pleasure for everyone. Dear Prudence and While My Guitar Gently Weeps are delicate and especially beautiful. Blackbird has McCartney doubled up on both vocals and guitar. He was right to simplify it for the album. These songs sound relaxed, almost naive, mostly fully formed, although Lennon’s generally need a bit more work and Harrison rarely has complete confidence in his lyrics. Harrison’s rejects are easily better than either Lennon’s or MCartney’s. It’s a disc that is well worth revisiting.
The big box, costing six times as much, adds fifty outtakes, a DVD of the remix, the mono, HD and Surroundsound versions, a lavish booklet, postcards and lyric sheet. It’s a lovely product. The outtakes have numerous points of interest but it’s unlikely these discs will be played often. One thing to note is the lack of bickering in the studio banter. Contrary to legend, the impression is largely of a group of young people who are very supportive of each other and actually enjoy each other’s company. The fascinating ten minute take of Revolution joins the dots between 1 and 9. You can get a good idea of what an Eric-less While My Guitar Gently Weeps would have been like. Good Night is much sweeter without strings, as is a stripped down Martha My Dear. The inclusion of Across The Universe (take 6) is a reminder of the other tracks recorded in 1968. The litmus test for your potential appreciation of these “sessions” is simple: ask yourself how often you listen to Anthology 3. Personally, I would sacrifice all of them for new remixes of Hey Jude/Revolution, Lady Madonna/The Inner Light and Hey Bulldog.
There are those who don’t listen to The Beatles any more. They should give this remix, and the Sgt. Pepper one, a spin. Giles Martin is an alchemist. Long may he continue to breathe new life into The Beatles catalogue. Who’d have thought that Pop music created fifty years ago would sound all the more fabulous today?
What does it all *mean*?
Great art arises from tension.
Newcomers to The White Album will probably think of this mix as definitive. If not, the original version is still available.
Goes well with…
A love of Rock music.
Might suit people who like…
If you like value, the three disc set is for you. Those who prefer to consume a whole hog can easily satisfy their needs, providing they are willing to pay.
In either case, to quote Agent K from Men In Black, we’ll have to buy The White Album again.